Who would have imagined that soaps have been with us for a long time? Yes, the history of soap goes back to days before Christ. Soap was discovered and used for its cleansing properties since prehistoric times. The earliest soaps were generally animal fat or vegetable oils boiled with ashes. Though soap was known since early ages, it was not easily available and quite expensive, because its recipe was a closely guarded secret and raw materials were not easily available everywhere. The world suffered many illnesses due to scarcity of soap and the subsequent lack of hygiene.
In 17th century, however, soap makers of France discovered chemical processes to make soap and soap manufacturing became comparatively easier, as a result making use of soaps popular. However, it was still a luxury as heavy taxes were levied upon soaps. It was only in the 19th century that it could be easily available to common public for personal hygiene because of an increase in soap manufacturing as a result of more researches and industrial revolution. During World Wars, need for more cleansing products arose. Due to this, detergents manufactured from synthetic methods were invented and they gradually replaced soaps made with natural ingredients for dishwashing and fabric cleansing. Detergents were more liked for their effective cleansing, even in mineral rich water, and the raw materials for manufacturing them were also easily available as compared to soaps.
Didn’t we all think that soaps and detergents are the same?
You might be surprised to know that soaps and detergents not only differ in their chemical structure, they are also made with different raw materials. Soaps are essentially sodium or potassium salts of fatty acids, obtained by chemically treating fats or oils with a strong alkali. On the other hand, a detergent typically contains one or more surfactants that may be derived from petrochemicals (petroleum products) or oleochemicals (oils and fats). Detergents perform better than soaps because they are effective even in hard water as opposed to soaps.
With the turn of century, better and more efficient variants of detergents such as dishwashing powders, concentrated powder and liquid detergents, detergent bars, liquid hand washes, stain remover and fabric softener added detergents and soaps for personal hygiene etc. were readily available. Today, a vast variety of personal cleansing products are available commercially, including body washes and shower gels, most of which, are partially or entirely made up of detergents and other chemical additives. Therefore, the term ‘soap’ is a misnomer for most of today’s personal hygiene products, unless it’s packaging explicitly claims it to be a ‘soap’. Even the shampoos available in the market are mild form of detergents.
The common bathing bars also do not claim to be a soap entirely. It is therefore a good idea to carefully read the label of your personal cleansing product to find out its ingredients and to determine whether it is a soap or a detergent.
For example, Sodium Laureth sulphate is present in many soaps and most of the shampoos and handwashes. If you do a little research, you will find that it is a surfactant and a very common foaming agent. Prolonged contact of Sodium Laureth Sulphate irritates skin. Presence of such harmful chemicals and detergent components in our cleansing products makes them unsuitable and harmful for skin. They might cause skin irritation, roughness, dryness and trigger skin allergies.
Hence, use of herbal soaps made up of natural oils and herb extracts is strongly recommended to protect and nourish skin and to get rid of harmful chemicals that are present in commercial bathing and cleansing products.